Suppose you have a $1000 mic preamp and a $100 audio interface. How many $$$ worth of signal will you get going into your DAW?
I can think of five possible answers...
By the logic of common sense, if you pay $1000 for a preamp you expect it to improve the signal in some way. Why else would you pay that much?
Generally speaking we don't expect an audio interface to improve the signal - we just want it to keep the signal faithful to the input. So from that point of view we can rule out $1100 as the answer. The audio interface is not going to add value.
But could the interface do any harm?
Well, assuming that the input is a genuine line level input, there isn't much to go wrong on the electronic side of things. There is probably little more than a simple buffer between the input socket and the analog-to-digital converter.
But might the converter be spoiling the signal in some way?
It could. I have heard bad converters - really bad converters - and I can say from experience that it isn't a place you want to go to. Times have changed however and these days you would need eagle ears to hear much of a difference between one converter and another. And even if you can, your client can't. And if you're selling your work on iTunes, then how many potential purchasers can tell the difference in the end-product? None.
Still, it all depends on the value you perceive, since you're the one who is paying. So at this point the signal could be worth $1000 (the interface makes no difference) or $900 (the interface has taken away value from the signal).
But if you're thinking $900, well there could be some faulty logic at work. If a chain is only as good as its weakest link, and the audio interface is the weakest link, then surely the value of the signal has dropped all the way down to $100. Well if this is so, the $1000 you spent on the preamp was entirely wasted!
Going back to what I said a couple of paragraphs ago however, I don't believe there is any issue in any line input or converter sold into pro audio that would affect the marketability of your recording. The preamp is different because a good preamp certainly can have a beneficial effect on the sound, over and above mere transparency.
So I see two possible ways to set about buying studio equipment in general...
One way would be to buy equipment that is all of the same class. Cheap, medium or expensive according to your budget. That way no one piece of equipment could let down the rest.
Alternatively, you could buy a cheap set up, then improve it with expensive items one by one, until the whole signal chain is top notch. The improvement in sound quality when the last weak link is removed should surely be startling!
P.S. Regardless of anything else, I believe the correct answer to my question is answer No. 5!
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